Not Exactly the Best Week

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Warning: what follows may come across as a bit whiny. Sorry. If that bothers you, stop here. The fact is, it hasn’t been the best week, so most of it’s just recounting all the various problems we had.

We’ve spent the past week or so being very frustrated. It started in API Call ErrorVeliko Tarnovo, which was a beautiful city, where the hostel we were staying in claimed to offer day tour to the surrounding area, but couldn’t take us because they “needed the car for pickups (from the bus station),” something they do most days, and we didn’t actually see the car move all day anyway. Then we went to Varna, which isn’t the most interesting town, but we’d wanted to see a bit of the Black Sea coast. (Which we didn’t actually do in the end – the beaches were waaaay too crowded). Again, day trips were advertised, this time offered by a third party, but the trouble was that only one person did them, and had a repertoire of probably 20 or so tours. He was booked until Thursday, and we’d only booked accommodation until Tuesday. Even if we’d wanted to wait, we couldn’t stay longer because everything was booked up in advance. Also, because the Black Sea coast is a very popular destination for Europeans looking to party it up on their 2 week vacations, the crowds were really not our type, indeed some of the other hostelers were quite rude. So even though we stayed in a fairly nice hostel, with a bar and community atmosphere, there wasn’t much socializing for us.

Neil forgot to mention that we did visit an aquarium in Varna – I almost wish we hadn’t. It was old, and poorly maintained, and while it contained some interesting specimens, little was in English (I really need to learn German!), and half or more of the tanks had at least one dead specimen in them. I felt bad for the live specimens having to live in such poor conditions. the tanks weren’t especially clean, either.

So by now, we’re getting a little frustrated, as we’ve had about 5 days with nothing at all to do, so we decided to book ourselves a nicer hotel in Ruse, on the Romanian border. This was not a good move. First off, because the bus ride to Ruse was absolutely disgusting – it was a full bus, with windows that didn’t open, and broken air conditioning. Then on arrival, we found the hotel we’d booked, despite good reviews, was really just overpriced. And thirdly, once again, the areas around town that interested us were unavailable…our hotel (and this is hotel that offers both 3 and 4 star rooms, supposedly) was of no help at all, and the tour agency in the Lonely Planet that offered canoe and hiking trips in the nearby National Park didn’t have offices at the location pointed to on the map. Another wasted couple of days…though we did at least have a selection of English TV, so were at least mildly entertained. And the street signs in Ruse are very poorly marked, making it easy to lose where we are.

So, somewhat upset, we left Bulgaria on a bad note, which is too bad, because the first 4 stops we made were wonderful. The ride to Bucharest was again a bit of a nightmare.

There are three trains per day across the border: 3am, 4am and 4pm. They’re scheduled to take about 3 hours, though often take longer. This schedule didn’t work for us, so we took the bus. Again, we had a bus – this time a minibus – that had every seat filled and didn’t have windows that opened. It was scheduled to leave a 11:30am, arriving in Bucharest at 1:15pm. That didn’t happen. The bus finally arrived in Ruse at 12:15pm, it took 15 minutes to sort everyone out (many people are opposed to buying tickets in advance and just rush the bus when it arrives, and then have to have tickets sorted out for them, which was time consuming in this case, since passport info is needed to book them on international routes.) No problem, we’ll still arrive a little past 2, right? Wrong again. It seems to be the eastern Europe pass-time to smuggle duty-free goods across the border. So quite aside from being a fairly inefficient border crossing to start with, we had to stop at the duty free shop for a while. Crossing into Bulgaria it wasn’t so bad. People who bought lots of duty free goods simply handed stuff out to people who bought few and it all worked out, but this time, everyone, except us and an Italian guy, wanted to get their own stuff across, so they were stuffing cigarettes and alcohol down pants, into socks, the works. I’m sure at least some of them must have gotten caught and had to buy their way out of trouble, because we spent over an hour at the Romanian side of the border while a group of people were chatting with the customs guys. Finally, a little past 2pm, we were through the border, having covered about 5km from the bus station in Ruse. We finally got to Bucharest at 4pm.

API Call ErrorBucharest was a nice reprieve from our problems though. We hadn’t scheduled much time for there, since it’s gotten a pretty bad review from other people we’ve met who’ve gone. As it turns out, there was at least enough of interest to spend two days, and it was a decent city…a little run down, but not too bad…kind of interesting actually, as it reminded us a bit of Cairo, except with working traffic lights and garbage pickup.

We did get to a couple of points of interest with our one day though…we visited the API Call ErrorPalace of Parliament, a monstrous thing built by the crazed dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu, and we visited the “Village Museum,” which I think was intended to be a bit like Fort Edmonton, but nothing was open, so really it was just a collection of building built in styles typical of various regions of Romania. Both were worth seeing. There is a small lake near the museum, across which is a API Call Errorbeautiful huge park. It looked like a nice place to spend an afternoon, but we didn’t have the time or energy to check it out. Even the much-reviled Champs Elysees copycat in front of the Palace is nicer than people make it out to be – it has trees and grass, and many fountains, and appears to be well maintained. The city itself is an interesting mix of old run down soviet blocks, and newer or restored, fairly attractive modern-looking buildings.

On a completely unrelated subject, I’ll bring up taxis. For most of the trip, we’ve had to deal with negotiating taxi fares, since they’re either unmetered or refuse to use their meters for foreigners. Not here. In both Bulgaria and Romania, they all have meters and use them, and they have to display their rates on the car, though the rates themselves are unregulated. In Bulgaria, rates varied from town to town, but within a town it was rare to see a bigger difference between cars in the same town than 0.10lv. We ran into trouble a couple times in Bulgaria, because there’s a few people who will post average rates and then rig the meter, so for instance a 10 minute drive in Varna to the bus station cost us 10lv at 0.60lv per kilometre. Romania has the opposite problem. The meters work a bit differently, where they actually show the rate they’re calculating, making rigging them more difficult, but the rates vary enormously. In Bucharest, the usual rate seemed to be about 1.10lei-1.20lei per kilometre, but some cars charge as much as ten times that, and if you’re flagging them down, it’s impossible to tell until they’ve stopped what the rate is. At first, we thought it was the newer cars charging more for comfort, but then I saw an old model Dacia (a Romanian domestic model known for regular breakdowns) matching the highest rates we’d seen, so I think it’s more about how lazy to driver is, if they prefer to only work at rush hour when people can’t find a more reasonable ride.

Enough of that. Things seem to be improving again, and so far we’re optimistic we’ll be able to enjoy Romania. We’re now in API Call ErrorBrasov, in the Transylvanian Alps, again hoping we can do some trips from here, as there’s supposed to be some interesting castles about.

PS – Neil forgot to mention that a large part of our discouragement has been the disgustingly hot and humid weather – while we have become somewhat accustomed to temps around 30 degrees, the humidity in parts of Bulgaria, and in Bucharest (and in Istanbul) is just terrible. Alberta is a very dry place, and we’re not used to having our clothes stick to us in the heat. Sweating 5 minutes out of the shower is just not fun. Brasov is in the mountains, and we arrived at the start of a thunder storm, and subsequent downpour – it is certainly much cooler here for the time being (we got soaked on the way to the cafe! :-)). We hope it remains cool for a few days, and hopefully that will help us regain some energies.

PPS – Our residence (I guess we’re really staying in someone’s home) has a bathtub!!!

-Kathy

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